Mark Catesby at the Gibbes | Ivory-billed woodpecker

Sunday, June 25, 2017

THIS GORGEOUS PORTRAIT of an ivory-billed woodpecker (now on display at the Gibbes) is one of the most compelling pieces in this exhibit. One reason for that may be because it is equally powerful and perplexing.

Its power derives partly from the bird’s size, which dominates the full height and nearly half the width of the canvas, making this look like an over-sized view of an otherwise petite species.¹ Power also emits from the striking contrast of red, black, and white colors. Look at that fiery crown which Catesby has rendered almost as flames. And notice how the white strip beneath the crown points directly to the eye and beak on the one hand, and to the large tail feather on the other.

Complementing these brilliant colors are the magnificent bone-like beak, the upright neck, the robust chest, and a richly manicured black coat which, together, give this woodpecker a luxuriousness that leaves you marveling at creation in general and endothermic vertebrates (birds) in particular. How could this creature possibly have come to be with such a majestic appearance and the ability to fly?

Power meets perplexity, however, in (1) the massive claw which seems out of both position and proportion relative to the bird, and (2) the awkwardness with which only one of four claws just barely clings to the tree trunk. There is also the question of the bird’s other leg, and where exactly it is.

Ivory-billed woodpecker and willow oak, ca. 1722-1726, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), watercolor and body color over pen and ink, Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

These “perplexities” are resolved, however, if you think of this painting as the equivalent of an early Renaissance portrait, rendered in full profile, with the emphasis on line, composition, and color, and without serious concern for three dimensions. Like the best of those early portraits (whose design grew from their Byzantine predecessors), this depiction of the woodpecker is grand, elegant, and more than convincing.

Most of Catesby’s paintings of birds show them in their environment, typically in a tree where they nested or fed. Here we see the branch of a willow oak with its distinct acorn nuts and its sturdy brown trunk, which is easy to imagine the woodpecker drilling into incessantly (and loudly). It seems odd, however, that the trunk appears cut with a saw rather than, say, split by lightning. Which raises the question: did Catesby “cut” the trunk in his composition to give full space to the bird’s beak and posture, and so as not to have the tree compete with his main subject?

On close examination, it looks like Catesby painted the bird first, right in the middle of his canvas—and perhaps without thinking about his eventual proportions as he did. Only after working the bird so beautifully, it seems, did he add the claw, leaves, acorns, and tree trunk.

But look how masterfully he blended everything together. The upward, vertical thrust of the bird is softened by the downward curve of the branch and its hanging leaves. The branch, which leads your eye to the right, also counterbalances the tail feather, which leads to the left, and which normally would lead your eye out of the canvas were it not for the branch tying into the trunk, which in turn guides your eye firmly up and back to the claw and bird.

Notice, too, how Catesby added a small section of bark to lessen the abrupt cut of the trunk. He also painted one leaf so that it falls behind the bird’s beak and keeps your eye from wandering out of the top of the canvas.

One more thing to appreciate is the orange eye and brightly reflected pupil. Their combined force of color and contrast speak directly to the fierceness and pride of the woodpecker—demonstrating once again that Catesby was painting portraits as much as pictures.

¹As noted by David J. Elliott, Executive Directive of The Catesby Commemorative Trust,
the ivory-billed woodpecker was the largest American woodpecker, which
led to the sobriquet, Good Lord Bird, as in “Good Lord, what a bird.”

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2 Responses to “Mark Catesby at the Gibbes | Ivory-billed woodpecker”

  1. Addison Ingle

    Another delightful review.

  2. Lynn McBride

    How amazing that you saw so much in this painting. I looked at it in a totally different way after I read your analysis. Great article!


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